The American Novel in the 21st Century

For generations, the novel has been among the most versatile and illuminating modes of creative expression.

The very best novelists — Steinbeck, Baldwin, Twain, Fitzgerald, O'Connor, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Pynchon — tested the boundaries of this form of communication. Their novels endure as a prism through which to experience the societal conditions that influenced their creativity.

For everyone who loves literature — either writing or reading it — the idea of "The Great American Novel" is a vital topic of conversation.

With more than 130,000 book lovers preparing to celebrate the written word at the seventh annual Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona next weekend, three University of Arizona professors discuss ways in which the novel has shifted and evolved over the years, where it fits into a saturated entertainment landscape, and which contemporary works may one day be included in the Great American Novel conversation.

Fenton Johnson is an associate professor of creative writing at the UA and author of the new novel "The Man Who Loved Birds," as well as the reprinted novels "Crossing the River" and "Scissors, Paper, Rock," all three recently issued by University Press of Kentucky.

Homer Pettey is a professor of English, film and literature with the UA. He serves as the general/founding editor for two scholarly book series, "Global Film Studios" and "International Film Stars," for Edinburgh University Press.

Scott Selisker is an assistant professor in the UA Department of English who teaches courses on American literature and digital humanities. His research examines the roles of science and technology in post-1945 American culture.

What is the first novel that comes to mind that deeply impacted you, either on an emotional or technical level?

Johnson: Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass," both profound books (but especially the latter) about death and dying and human resilience and humor in the face of mortality.

Pettey: William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," which I read when I was a junior in high school.

Selisker: The first thing that comes to mind on an emotional level is Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," which I read in college and have taught several times. Its ambiguous final line still gets me. The "technical" part of the question is interesting, too — when I was a senior in high school, I really connected with James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and I was excited about the challenge of reading "Ulysses." I'd been a prospective math and engineering major at that point, but the experience of trying to figure out "Ulysses" played a big role in my switch to majoring in liberal arts and eventually English.

How has the novel evolved in the information age?

Johnson: We have more ways of telling our stories, and more ways of getting them into the hands of those who want to read or hear or see them. But the heart and purpose of our storytelling — our engagement with the "eternal verities" (William Faulkner) — is unchanged.

Pettey: If there has been a progression, then it would be with the expansion of world literature available, even in this country, which has a terrible record of translating foreign novels, unlike France, Germany and Japan.

Selisker: The novel has more competition than ever. Some novels are incorporating the forms of the information age. Books like Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves," which resembles the 1990s Internet in its formal experiments, or Jennifer Egan’s terrific "A Visit From the Goon Squad," which features a great short story told as a PowerPoint diary written in the future. Novelists like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson even gave us terms and ideas like "cyberspace" and "avatar." In that case, you could even say the information age has evolved with the novel.

Is it possible for a traditional novel to have the same impact on the wider culture as it once did?

Johnson: Readers of serious fiction have always been a small subset of readers as a whole, and thus an even smaller subset of the culture. But stories and storytelling achieve their impact not at the level of whole societies but in the hearts and minds of particular readers and writers. I'm not writing for "society," but for the dedicated reader who wants to suspend disbelief for many hours and emerge more thoughtful, maybe even in some small way changed. In this way, novels remain our most powerful form of storytelling, because no other medium, not even movies, demands such total, unreserved engagement of two hearts and minds.

Pettey: Has there ever been a traditional novel? "The Tale of Genji," "Tom Jones," "Justine," "Quo Vadis?," "The Maltese Falcon," "The Bridge on the Drina," "El Señor Presidente," "Beloved," "A Personal Matter," "Red Sorghun" — are they "traditional"?

Selisker: I think traditional novels are continuing to influence our world in big ways. I've argued in my scholarship, for instance, that George Orwell's "1984" has had a huge impact on the ways we talk about politics, about propaganda and surveillance, and the differences between democracy and totalitarianism, freedom and un-freedom. An interesting pattern to me is that a fair number of the "biggest" very recent books, in terms of readership, franchise size and wide cultural impact, have been children's or young-adult books: "Harry Potter," "The Hunger Games," "Twilight," and even an adult book that started as "Twilight" fan fiction, "Fifty Shades of Grey."

When discussing the concept of The Great American Novel, should that conversation be broadened to include serialized forms of storytelling, such as "The Sopranos" or "The Wire"? Or should that conversation remain focused on writing that isn’t attached to a visual element?

Johnson: I got hours of enjoyment and distraction from "The Sopranos" and "The Wire." In both cases — as with virtually all their viewers — I could and did switch them off to tend to cooking, or answer the phone, or head to the gym. When I encounter a really good novel, that external world falls away and it's just the writer, me, and the writer's world and my reactions to it.

No TV program possesses our consciousness like a good novel. Perhaps that is why, while Dickens' novels were instrumental in reform of orphanages and workhouses in 19th-century England, I don't see "The Wire" as having achieved any lasting impact on our misbegotten "war on drugs." Maybe it’s too soon to make that judgment. I'd like to think so. Whatever it takes.

Pettey: For me, the Great American Novel is García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," so we need to expand the concept to include all of the Americas first before extending it to television series.

Selisker: Yes, I think that conversation should be broadened. In many senses, the novel occupied the same cultural roles in, say, the 19th century, as television did in the mid-to-late 20th century. We might say that serial television in the 21st century is in a similar place to the novel in the early 20th century. In part because of pressure from other media forms, television is experimenting boldly with the forms and kinds of stories it can tell. In fact, I’m teaching Season 1 of "The Wire" in my graduate course on networks in contemporary literature.

Are there any modern novels you believe will be subject to deeper examination in English courses in the future, the way this generation studies "The Grapes of Wrath" or "The Adventures of Huck Finn"?

Johnson: Virtually all of Toni Morrison, of course. James Baldwin, whose novels are underrated. Certain of the gay writers of the 1980s — Alan Holinghurst comes to mind. Maybe Colm Toibin, but once we pass 2000, we're too close to our own biases to let time do its filtering thing. Marguerite Yourcenar? Chinua Achebe? Louise Erdrich? J.M. Coetzee? The selection, I'm happy to say, is too vast for me to winnow down.

Aspects of the novel that are superior to all other technologies: durability, portability, ease and simplicity of production. You can take it to the beach, on the bus, to the doctor's office. My new novel, "The Man Who Loved Birds," as well as the reprints of my earlier novels, are on acid-free paper — meaning that, of all technologies that abound today, they’re the most likely to be available to the scholar of 400 years hence. What does that mean? Who can say? But a reader wanting to know what it was like to live through the AIDS plague may be able to pick up "Scissors, Paper, Rock," just as I pick up "Middlemarch" to glimpse into life in rural 19th-century England. In both cases, I find great comfort in seeing that, though the landscapes have dramatically changed, the ways and means of the heart remain consistent.

Pettey: I seek out new works from world literature, since I tend to find contemporary American fiction shallow and self-indulgent.

Selisker: Absolutely. I'm re-reading David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" for its 20th anniversary this spring, and I think many scholars already see that as a major novel of our generation, worthy of plenty of attention and rereading. (It starts in Tucson, actually, in the Dean's Office in Modern Languages.)

I think Toni Morrison's place in the canon is already very certain. I like Ursula K. Le Guin, too. One thing that’s exciting for me is that at least some of this canon formation takes place in the classroom — the books that really resonate with students will be the ones that professors continue to teach and write about, and the ones students will recommend to their friends, and that may in the future have a similar status to "Moby-Dick" or "The Great Gatsby." That deeper examination of fiction takes place outside the classroom, too, though, as we can see from the large contemporary followings of writers like Wallace, Joyce, and even readers of young adult fiction who write fan fiction and are inventing other new ways to interact with literature.

Written by: Nick Prevenas, University Relations - Communications


Published Date: 

03/10/2016 - 9:36am